Is 2017 another case of bad timing for Colombian climber Nairo Quintana?
Three years ago, Movistar steered Quintana clear of the 2014 Tour de France, only to see Chris Froome crash out and open the door for Vincenzo Nibali to win.
This year, Froome looks more vulnerable than ever, with three riders within 30 seconds of the yellow jersey going into the final mountain stages.
Quintana — twice second and once third behind Froome — will have to sit on the sidelines as the GC favorites duke it out for the overall victory.
“If I hadn’t gone to the Giro, I would have been 100 percent for the Tour,” Quintana said Monday. “I didn’t have enough time to recover between the Giro and Tour.”
The 27-year-old finished Tuesday in 10th overall at 6:16 back. He vowed to fight all the way to Paris to finish off what’s been a disappointing Tour in the best way possible.
Quintana and Movistar now face inevitable questions about whether or not the team miscalculated by taking on the elusive Giro-Tour double in the very same year that Froome might get knocked off.
It’s a question that will haunt them for the remainder of this Tour, especially if Froome doesn’t win.
After Quintana’s dramatic rookie debut in 2013, Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué decided it was better for Quintana’s long-term development if he went to the 2014 Giro to learn what it took to win a three-week grand tour. They chose to race the Giro to win rather than struggle against a strong Froome and Sky in the Tour.
Of course, it’s impossible to forecast the future. Quintana won the Giro, but could only watch as Froome crashed out in the first week of the 2014 Tour. Nibali roared through the opening to win Italy’s first yellow jersey in nearly two decades.
Quintana returned to the Tour in 2015 and nearly knocked off Froome. Last year, Quintana still managed third, keeping his remarkable Tour podium streak alive.
With less than a week to go, Froome looks more vulnerable than ever. Yet a weary and battered Quintana won’t be the one to take him down.
“His team is as strong, but he hasn’t opened up the differences like in the past,” Quintana said of Froome. “It’s an interesting Tour. Anyone of those near the top can still win.”
Though Quintana didn’t let on during Monday’s rest day, it must pain him to say those words.
Many have wondered who was behind the decision to take on the double, considered one of cycling’s most difficult challenges. Only seven riders have done it in cycling history. Marco Pantani was the last in 1998.
Unzué said it was a mutual decision, with the allure of the Giro’s 100th edition as a special carrot. The team also cited Quintana’s record of riding stronger in the second grand tour after completing another.
Yet it was an odd choice to focus on the Giro laden with so many time trial kilometers. That was a clear disadvantage to Quintana. Organizers built a course hoping to lure Froome to Italy for its 100th edition, and got Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) instead. Quintana didn’t expect Dumoulin to be so stubborn in the mountains. He was pipped on the final-day time trial.
Movistar was one step away from at least having the first part of the double a success. It came into this Tour cautiously optimistic. Those hopes soon unraveled in the first mountain stages. Quintana finally gave up the chase Sunday when he slipped out of the top 10.
“The head says ‘Go,’ but the legs don’t respond,” Quintana said. “This has been a big blow for everyone.”
In his public comments, Quintana has never second-guessed taking on the Giro-Tour double. He only added that he would not likely do it again.
Last week, however, Quintana’s father Luís criticized Movistar’s decision to take his son to the Giro. Speaking to Colombian radio, he said that the team was “burning out my son” and that it was an “error to take him to the Giro if they were bringing him to the Tour.”
When asked about his father’s comments Monday, Quintana defended the team’s posture.
“It’s been a few days since I’ve spoken with my father,” Quintana said. “He has his own ideas. It’s what the others tell him. He’s filled with the praises comments the public, the words and the frustrations, in one way or another, of all Colombians.
“When we are at the front and always winning, no one says anything, and everything is perfect,” Quintana said. “The words [of my father] are of anger in the heat of the moment. I don’t agree with them and we shouldn’t give it too much importance.”
Without Quintana in the hunt, Movistar faces its worse Tour in years.
The opening stage crash and departure of co-captain Alejandro Valverde especially stung. In a GC fight so tight, it is likely that the veteran Spaniard would have been right in the thick of things even if Quintana were out of the frame.
“If Alejandro had been here,” Unzué said, “maybe we wouldn’t be speaking of such a big disappointment.”
Besides Valverde and Quintana, Movistar’s other riders and stage-hunters are also hurting. Andrey Amador is out. Jesus Herrada was injured in a heavy crash in stage 9. Carlos Betancur and Jonathan Castroviejo are also not in position to win a stage in the final week.
Every year since 2013, Movistar has been one of the main protagonists in the Tour. Its riders either won stages or reached the podium. Or, on a few occasions, they did both.
Quintana still hopes to become Colombia’s first Tour winner — Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale-Drapac) might beat him to it — but that will have to wait until 2018.
And who knows what kind of course the Tour organizers will deliver. Perhaps they will be looking for a match-up between Froome and Dumoulin, and create a course with longer time trials.
Quintana is still only 27, and Froome didn’t win his first Tour until he was 28. The Colombian still has more chances ahead of him, but maybe not one as good as this year.